Security in the Gulf region has been a vexing and cumbersome issue for decades. Invasions and competing regional and foreign empires, not least border disputes, have left an indelible mark on the region.
The most critical region in terms of energy security and resources has witnessed chronic instability, intransigence, and has had to deal with irredentist and covetous powers with hegemonic intentions. This has kept the Gulf embroiled in wars, instability and rivalries for far too long. There continues to be a lack of regional balance of power, a situation is exacerbated by global rivalries.
America’s increasing presence in the Gulf region has only contributed to an artificial balance of power through the outsourcing of security. The defence spending of Gulf Cooperation Council states has increased exponentially, but the feeling of insecurity persists.
The tension over a potential strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities adds to the drama. Through it all, the GCC finds itself being pushed and shoved and more or less reduced to the status of a bystander.
Ever since the surprise announcement by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz at the 32nd GCC summit held in Riyadh last December about the need to move from security cooperation to a bolder and tighter union, there have been discussions and workshops about the potential of that initiative.
I have participated in three symposiums and written extensively about King Abdullah’s initiative in both Arabic and this space too. Last week, I was invited to give a talk at the prestigious Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research on this very issue, the prospect and challenges of a GCC union. The union was supposed to be announced at the Consultative Summit in May, but was delayed until December for further deliberations and discussions.
The GCC formed an ad hoc committee of 12 members, two from each state, to draft a study that has been submitted to the General Secretariat to be discussed in next September’s meeting of GCC foreign ministers, with the expectation of announcing a move towards some sort of an alliance by December during the annual GCC summit of the heads of states to be held in Bahrain.
In fact, Bahrain is lobbying hardest for the Gulf union. The alliance in its first phase could start with two or three members or become a sort of “alliance of the willing”, where others can join at their own pace.
King Abdullah, in introducing his bold initiative to move the lethargic organisation towards a union, warned: “We meet today in the midst of clear challenges that require our vigilance and unity, because our security and stability is being challenged. Thus, we have to meet these challenges to safeguard our religion and countries.” He added, “I ask today that we move from a phase of cooperation to a phase of union within a single entity,” But how to get there?
First, there is a need to spell out what this new alliance or union is all about. For nine months there has not been any clear indication of what the union is. Will it be a mini Nato? Or will it move the GCC towards an EU model? Is Asean a better model to emulate? Or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) a more viable paradigm? How about the failure of all Arab attempts to form any kind of unions! Whether it was between Egypt and Syria, or Egypt and Libya or Egypt and Sudan. Or like the short-lived Arab Cooperation Council and the defunct Arab Maghreb Union. Arab experience at union is not impressive to instil any kind of confidence about the GCC.
Second, the GCC alliance, which was established for security reasons, seems to have drifted for 32 years without getting any tractions. The GCC states kept outsourcing security, and not seeing eye-to-eye on security threats from Kuwait to Oman due to the region’s geopolitics and the varying threat perceptions from Iraq and Iran. These divergent views have prevented a unified GCC front from emerging.
Third, there is also a need for the larger GCC states to reassure the smaller members that their voice will be heard and that they won’t be marginalised or dominated by the larger states in the new union. Solving long simmering disputes and disagreement will go a long way in allaying the fears of the smaller states.
Fourth, there are many concrete steps that need to be taken to guarantee the success of the proposed union or it could falter. There are many issues that need to be addressed and tackled. The call by King Abdullah to move towards a union, seems to be a step in the right direction and long overdue attempt to put meat on GCC bones. But before such step could materialise there is an urgent need to address the lingering disputes over priorities, rivalries and divergent views among the member states over economic, foreign and security threats.
It is no secret the GCC states have failed and bickered even over areas where disputes were supposed to be least expected, like the economic sphere. We experienced frictions over the Monetary Union, the Common Market, VAT, and the Common Currency — all have been abandoned or postponed.
Fifth, there has not been much embracing of the proposed union; only Bahrain stands out for obvious reasons. The Omani minister in charge of foreign affairs has voiced some reservations: “It is not suited for our generation.”
The Shiite opposition in Bahrain is vehemently against it, so are the Shiite MPs in the Kuwaiti parliament. Clearly not everyone is on board, and the GCC intelligence has not been forthcoming either.
It is time for the GCC to get its act together. The failure of the GCC to live up to the members’ expectations speaks volumes for the urgent need for unity. The GCC as an organisation has not delivered the needed added value.
Therefore, security and stability remain elusive and wanting. May be the long overdue move to a Gulf union could do the trick and succeed where three decades of procrastination have failed. But first and foremost, the move to the Gulf Union has to be a strategic, it must be based on strong foundation.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the Chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji